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Nazis, Ataturk and Islam

April 03, 2016

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General Toydemir and his entourage travelling across Nazi-occupied Europe. Photo from the book Ataturk in the Nazi Imagination
General Toydemir and his entourage travelling across Nazi-occupied Europe. Photo from the book Ataturk in the Nazi Imagination

Nazi interest in Islam and Turkey, especially in Kemal Ataturk, is nothing to be proud of. But the interest in Islam precedes the Nazi era, for German focus on the Muslim world during WWI was equally intense. Because millions of Muslims lived in the British, French and Russian (later Soviet) empires, and hundreds of thousands of the faithful were a vital part of the colonial armies, German propaganda in both the wars sought to win Muslims over and present Kaiser’s Germany and the Third Reich as defenders of the Islamic faith.

The two books under review — Ataturk in the Nazi Imagination by Stefan Ihrig and Islam and Nazi Germany’s War by David Motadel — make fascinating reading and highlight the variety of ways in which the German state sought to subvert the Muslim soldiers’ professional loyalty to the Allied armies in the two wars. The first book explains in detail why Ataturk fascinated German diplomats, politicians, academicians and journalists and how Mustafa Kemal’s repudiation of the Treaty of Severs and defiance of the Entente powers fired German imagination. The failure of the German nation to produce a ‘German Mustafa’ was a theme common to the narrative by both Nazi and non-Nazi press and politicians in the Weimar republic.

Major newspapers ‘Germanified’ the Turkish topic, wondered why they could not produce a ‘German Mustafa Kemal’, asked German leaders to keep Turkey in mind as their role model and, even before he had entered Constantinople, were describing him as “a man of steel” and a “Fuhrer personality”. Cartoons showed German leaders signing the Treaty of Versailles abjectly while Kemal, even before he was proclaimed Ataturk, was shown as ordering the Entente around. What impressed the press most was Turkey’s threat, even while negotiations were going on at Lausanne, to resume fighting if an agreement was not acceptable to them. In about four years, one German newspaper published 2,300 articles, reports and news items on the Turkish war of independence and demanded that the Turkish fight be “replicated” in Germany.


A study of two different books on similar historical themes


Also active in propagating the Turkish model of resistance were the large number of German officers who had served with the Ottoman army during WWI and were often referred to as “German pashas” or “German Ottomans”, including Kemal’s commander at Gallipoli, Otto Liman von Sanders. The popular cry was, “Let’s have a German Ankara”.

Hitler too made frequent references to the Turkish resistance and said Ataturk was “a star in the darkness” — a reference to Germany’s humiliation under the Treaty of Versailles, especially, for a racist like Hitler, the use of African soldiers by the French in occupied Ruhr. When accused of treason after the abortive Munich Putsch, Hitler said he had copied Ataturk, who had begun his mission not from “decadent” Constantinople but from rural Anatolia. He too had begun his mission from Bavaria and wanted to march on to Berlin just as Ataturk had proceeded from Ankara to the Ottoman capital and Mussolini to Rome.

In an interview with Turkish daily Milliyet, Hitler called Ataturk “the greatest leader of the century” — a remark not wide of the mark then, because in 1933, when Hitler came to power, the world had not yet heard of the giants who were to follow — Jinnah, Gandhi, Mao, Stalin, Nasser, Khomeini and Mandela.

The second book dwells on German propaganda techniques in WWII, especially the use of Islam and Islamic symbols, besides Quranic recitals, in broadcasts and pamphlets dropped on Allied-controlled Muslim lands in North Africa and the Soviet Union, with Hitler portrayed as a defender of Islam as Kaiser was projected in WWI. Muslims were told that they had common enemies in the British, French and Russians, who had enslaved Muslim peoples, besides the Jews. Because the Arabs are also Semites, broadcasts and writings avoided the use of the word Semites and instead focussed on Jews.

The names of Mahdi, Dajjal and Isa were widely used in pamphlets, with the Information Ministry ordering the printing of one million flyers that quoted Tabari and Bukhari as saying that Dajjal was a Jewish king, “fat with curly hair”, who would try to rule the world. “O Arabs! Do you see that the time of Dajjal has come [... and he has stolen] the land of Arabs? Truly, he is a monster, and his allies are devils!” There was an implied reference to Hitler when it said that a man “has already appeared in the world [... who has] turned his lance against the Dajjal and his allies [...and] will kill the Dajjal, as it is written, destroy his palaces and cast his allies into hell.” The attempt to translate Mein Kampf into Arabic couldn’t materialise, but sections were translated, with the text written in the “solemn tone” of the Quran so that Muslims worldwide could appreciate it. While German propaganda referred to Der Fuhrer as Adolf Effendi, the British too replied in Islamic terms and called Hitler “khanzir” (pig).

Handbooks were distributed among German soldiers to teach them do’s and don’ts in the Muslim world, to respect mosques, to avoid talking to Muslim women or taking their photographs and not to interfere with prayers, which the book said were a daily affair for Muslims. A more vigorous drive was launched in Bosnia, Crimea and the Caucasus, mosques closed by the Soviets were opened, Eids were celebrated, German soldiers presented gifts to the population, and Soviet Muslim prisoners were treated differently.

So high was the number of Soviet soldiers taken prisoner that the Wehrmacht raised new army divisions out of Soviet Muslim soldiers, while thousands of Balkan Muslims, especially those of Bosnia and Albania, were recruited in the Waffen SS, with a school opened for field imams to train them in rituals and burial rites. While the German focus in the Arab world was on pan-Islamism, in the Soviet world German propaganda aimed at arousing pan-Turanian feelings as well. Yet in both the Middle East and the USSR, the Muslim religious class, even if pro-German, refused to give a call for jihad.

To ensure the broadcast’s reception throughout the Muslim world, the Germans set up the world’s most powerful short wave transmitter, which also broadcast in Urdu and Persian. A careful listener of the Persian broadcasts was one Mullah Musavi. Forty years later, the world would know him as Ayatollah Khomeini. He was appalled by Nazi philosophy and called it “the most poisonous and heinous product of the human mind”.

Germans were not the only ones using Islam as a propaganda tool in European wars. The Allies too did this, as did Napoleon way back in the late 18th century in Egypt, and let’s accept that Muslim potentates and dictators, too, have never been far behind in exploiting Islam for political purposes. The authors of both the books must be lauded for their painstaking research in producing these highly readable volumes that include relevant photographs as well.

The reviewer is Dawn’s Readers’ Editor.

Ataturk in the Nazi Imagination
(HISTORY)
By Stefan Ihrig
Harvard University Press, US
ISBN 978-067436837
305pp.

Islam and Nazi Germany’s War
(HISTORY)
By David Motadel
Harvard University Press, US
ISBN 978-0674724600
500pp.